A Baltimore, Md., pro-life pregnancy help center has gained another court victory over the city’s attempt to require it to communicate government-approved speech.
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Jan. 5 a Baltimore ordinance violated the First Amendment’s free-speech clause by mandating pro-life centers display signs saying they do not provide abortions or contraceptives or make referrals for the services. The law does not require abortion clinics to post messages communicating what services they do not provide.
In its unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit described as “particularly troubling” that the ordinance “compels speech from pro-life pregnancy centers, but not other pregnancy clinics that offer or refer for abortion.”
The decision received praise from the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
“This is a positive ruling for a culture of life,” Daniel Darling, the ERLC’s vice president for communications, told Baptist Press in written comments. “Pregnancy centers are at the forefront of the fight for life, providing compassionate, loving care to women in crisis.”
In a written statement, Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at Becket Law, said the opinion “confirms that government has no place mandating speech – especially speech associated with deeply-held religious beliefs. The [Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns] can now continue helping women in need without the government telling them how to talk about abortion.”
The ERLC signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief with the Fourth Circuit in support of the center. Becket represents the center in the case.
The Baltimore ordinance was believed to be the first of its kind in an American city when it was approved in 2009. But other jurisdictions have enacted similar mandates since then. One such requirement is before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices announced in November they would rule on a 2015 California law that requires pro-life pregnancy centers to notify their clients of the availability of abortion services elsewhere. It appears oral arguments will be in March or April, with a ruling expected before the court adjourns in late June or early July.
Hawaii and Illinois have adopted laws similar to California’s, and some cities have approved signage ordinances comparable to Baltimore’s measure. Courts have invalidated all or most of such mandates in not only Baltimore but Austin, Texas; Montgomery County, Md.; and New York City.
The laws are part of an ongoing effort by abortion-rights advocates and their lawmaking allies to limit the impact of pro-life centers that provide free services to pregnant women. With the aid of ultrasound machines that demonstrate the humanity of the unborn child, pro-life centers are helping women decide to give birth. The centers’ services also include medical consultations, baby clothing and diapers, job training, mentoring programs, post-abortion counseling and prenatal and parenting classes. Abortion clinics typically do not provide many of these services.
In the Fourth Circuit decision, the panel said it does “not begrudge the City its viewpoint. But neither may the City disfavor only those who disagree.”
“The dangers of compelled speech in an area as ideologically sensitive and spiritually fraught as this one require that the government not overplay its hand,” according to the ruling.
“After seven years of litigation and a 1,295-page record before us, the City does not identify a single example of a woman who entered the Greater Baltimore Center’s waiting room under the misimpression that she could obtain an abortion there.”
Carol Crews, the center’s executive director, said in a written release, “We are committed to serving women in need in a way that respects their choices, comforts them in a difficult time and is in line with our mission. This court ruling means that we can do our job and the government can’t tell us what to say or how to say it.”
The Fourth Circuit has considered the case – Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore – three times. It first affirmed a federal judge’s 2011 summary judgment ruling that the ordinance violates freedom of speech.
In 2013, however, the entire Fourth Circuit panel vacated the judgment and remanded it to federal court, where a judge again ruled the ordinance infringed free speech. If it had been upheld, the ordinance called for a fine of $150 a day for a center that refuses to obey.
On Nov. 1, the ERLC posted an article regarding attacks on pro-life pregnancy centers. It may be accessed at erlc.com/resource-library/articles/fundraising-vs-fact-raising-why-attacks-on-pregnancy-centers-always-fail.
The ERLC aids gospel-focused pregnancy centers through its Psalm 139 Project, which provides funds to purchase and place ultrasound machines in such centers.
The ministry of pro-life pregnancy centers will be among the topics at the third annual Evangelicals for Life (EFL) conference, which is scheduled Jan. 18-20 in Washington, D.C. A panel on the first day will discuss such centers. The ERLC and Focus on the Family are cosponsors of the conference.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)